Big Ten on Track to Set Record for Most NCAA Tournament Bids from 1 Conference

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystJanuary 17, 2020

Michigan State's Cassius Winston and Minnesota's Gabe Kalscheur
Michigan State's Cassius Winston and Minnesota's Gabe KalscheurRey Del Rio/Getty Images

Here's a word problem for you: If the Big Tenwhich has 14 schoolssends 12 of those teams to the 2020 men's NCAA tournament, how many people are going to complain about it?

The answer is an awful lot, but it's time to start bracing for that possibility.

In most college basketball seasons, it's difficult to say with any certainty which conference is the best. As of late, it's usually the Big 12 as far as KenPom.com is concerned, but there are almost always two other leagues breathing right down its neck with a good argument for why they belong in the top spot.

This year, there's no such debate.

On Tuesday morning, the Big Ten had 12 of the top 36 teams on KenPom. In a sport with 353 teams at the D-I level, that can otherwise be read as one-third of the top 10 percent.

Compare that to one year ago, when the Big Tenwhich was pretty solid top to bottom and sent eight teams to the NCAA tournamentfinished the year with only five teams in the top 36.

Here's the thing about the Big Ten, though: Everyone (except for Nebraska and Northwestern) is good, but no one is great.

Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State each spent multiple weeks ranked in the Top 5 of the AP poll, but no one in the league is better than No. 15 at the moment.

As a result, the gap between the best team in the conference (arguably Michigan State) and the 12th-best team (arguably Indiana) is almost negligible. Per KenPom, the Hoosiers have a 43 percent chance of winning their home game against the Spartans later next week, even though Pomeroy's site is much higher on Michigan State (No. 6) than the AP voters are (No. 15).

For the sake of comparison: In the similarly sized ACC, Duke is projected to win by 11 at 12th-best North Carolina.

That "any Big Ten can beat any other Big Ten team at home" frame of mind certainly tracks with what has transpired thus far, as the home team is 35-6 in Big Ten play. Wisconsin has been the odd ball, losing at home to Illinois but winning at Penn State and Ohio State. However, aside from games involving the Badgersand a few hosted by Nebraska or Northwesternit's pretty much expected at this point that the home team is going to win every league game.

And if that trend continues for the next seven weeks, the Big Ten is going to make NCAA tournament history.

Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis
Indiana's Trayce Jackson-DavisJulio Cortez/Associated Press

Conventional wisdom suggests there's no chance that a 14-team league can send 12 squads to the Big Dance. The Big East set the record with 11 bids in 2011, but that was also a 16-team league. The 15-team ACC had a few nine-bid years recently, but nine out of 15 (60 percent) is a heck of lot different from 12 out of 14 (85.7 percent).

While noting that he had 12 Big Ten teams in his latest bracket projection for NCAA.com, Andy Katz said: "There's no way, I don't see that happening long term. They're going to cannibalize each other. Some teams are going to fall out."

Are we sure about that?

KenPom currently has 12 Big Ten teams projected to finish 9-11 or better in league play. Each of those teams already has multiple Quadrant 1 winsthe Big East has the next-most with seven teams boasting at least two Q1 victoriesand it's reasonable to assume all 12 would pick up at least three more in the process of reaching its projected win total.

Moreover, there's not a single Quadrant 4 loss in the bunch, and those 12 teams have suffered a combined total of five Quadrant 3 lossesPurdue and Iowa both lost at Nebraska, Illinois dropped a home game against Miami and Rutgers and Penn State lost to St. Bonaventure and Ole Miss, respectively, on neutral floors. And basically every game the rest of the way for all 12 teams will fall into the top two Quadrants.

Most important of all is the refrain that will be repeated on a near-hourly basis for the next 50 or so days: We have to get to 68 teams somehow.

The ACC is a hot mess this year and may well send only four teams to the NCAA tournament.

Neither the Pac-12 nor the SEC is in much better shape. Each possesses four solid tournament resumes and a couple of bubble teams.

Both the A-10 and the Mountain West are looking like one-bid leagues if Dayton and San Diego State can secure the automatic bids.

The West Coast Conference might be a three-bid league, but both BYU and Saint Mary's are one misstep away from falling by the wayside.

And aside from Liberty and maybe Northern Iowa, there isn't even a minor-conference darling out there threatening to steal an at-large bid if it happens to lose in its conference championship game. (Liberty theoretically could win every game between now and the Atlantic Sun title game, finish 31-2 and still get left out because of how awful its schedule is.)

Butand say it with me herewe have to get to 68 teams somehow.

Penn State's Mike Watkins and Pat Chambers
Penn State's Mike Watkins and Pat ChambersJohn Beale/Associated Press

If Penn State does finish in 12th place in the Big Ten with a 9-11 record, it would enter the Big Ten tournament at 19-12 overall. The Nittany Lions already have six wins over the top two Quadrants, and their only non-Q1 loss was a 74-72 neutral-site game against Ole Miss. And as things currently stand in the NET, they have eight Q1, three Q2 and three Q3 games remainingplus whatever comes their way in the Big Ten tournament.

It's a similar story for Indiana, which suffered one forgivable non-conference loss (Arkansas) while also picking up good wins over Florida State, Notre Dame and Connecticut. If the Hoosiers finish 19-12 (9-11 in Big Ten), they should be golden.

Considering Ohio State got in last year with an 8-12 league record and a 19-14 overall record, it's hard to imagine Penn State or Indiana would get left out with that type of resume. And again, we're only looking at the teams projected to finish in 11th and 12th in the league. The path to the tournament only gets easier the further up the ladder you go.

They need to maintain the status quo, though. This hypothetical goes up in smoke if Northwestern starts winning road games or if a few teams separate from the pack and end up winning 14 or more conference games.

Regardless of how this ends, 12 teams from one conference in the projected field in mid-January is uncharted waters.

                                  

Data and records current through the start of play on Thursday.

Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.

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